The Consequences of a Gluten-Free Diet Craze

The gluten-free diet craze has been called the fad diet of this decade, comparable to the low-fat, no-fat craze of the 80s and 90s. Though losing popularity as a diet craze, there is still a lingering stigma that “gluten-free” means healthier food options. As we’ve discussed in our Food Trends of 2015 blog post, the lack of the protein gluten usually means extra fat, sugar and sodium are added to make up for lack of taste and consistency. The misinformation about gluten has led to negative connotations about the healthfulness of wheat and wheat products.

Unfortunately, this diet craze has led to more severe consequences for those that are unable to eat gluten. For a small percentage of the population that has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, eating gluten can cause serious health concerns and potentially lead to a medical emergency. It is certainly a health issue that should not be taken lightly.

However, according to an article on NPR’s food blog, The Salt, the 30 percent of the American population “trying to avoid gluten” are creating a stigma that anyone asking for “gluten-free” meal options is simply on the fad-diet bandwagon. Those with celiac disease are finding that this diet trend is leading to servers passing judgment or not following necessary precautions when they ask for dietary menu requests. In other words, the customers who “order gluten-free meals washed down with a gluten-filled beer” are essentially making a mockery of a serious issue.

We want to set the record straight. Here are the facts you should know about gluten:

  • Gluten is just protein! Gluten is a protein that is made up of two natural proteins – gliadin and glutenin – found in wheat, barley, rye, and their grain relatives. Gluten is what helps bread expand while the dough is rising and hold its shape while it’s baking and after it cools. It’s also what makes bread chewy.
  • Not everyone should be on a gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet is necessary for those with celiac disease, but it is not a healthy diet for the general population. Only 1 percent of the population has celiac disease. For the remaining 99 percent of the population not suffering from celiac disease, there are risks that go with a gluten-free diet. Some of the risks and drawbacks include: reduced intake of necessary nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, fiber, folate, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin (vitamin B-3), and calcium; Increased intake of fat, carbohydrates, sodium, and calories. Fat and sugars are often used as replacements in gluten-free product; and increased intake of wheat replacements that have higher glycemic indexes and lower fiber and protein levels than wheat.
  • Gluten-free diets can lead to weight gain. More than a third of Americans think that going gluten-free will help them slim down, according to a Consumer Reports survey. There is no evidence to support the claim that gluten-free diets are a good weight-loss strategy, and often gluten-free can lead to weight gain. In a review of studies on nutrition and celiac disease published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers said that a gluten-free diet “seems to increase the risk of overweight or obesity.” The authors attributed that to the tendency for gluten-free foods to have more calories, sugars, and fat than their regular counterparts.

It is important to understand the difference between a medical issue and a fad. Those that are able to eat wheat and gluten should remember that wheat provides essential daily nutrients. America’s wheat farmers and their families work hard 365 days a year to ensure the food product they are delivering to your kitchen table is safe. So, before you jump on the next food-craze bandwagon, think about the consequences.